Technology and Unemployment

There has been an on-going tug of war between the optimists and the pessimists when it comes to how disruptive technology can be with regards to employment.

John Maynard Keynes was one of the early ones, coining the term ‘technological unemployment’, phenomena where, the discovery of the means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. As technology outpaces the speed at which human labour can upgrade their skills, inequality grows and society is a lot worse off.

Joseph Schumpeter, on the other hand, used the term ‘creative destruction’, a view that chimes with the optimists who believe that due to the outbreak of technology, old, inefficient industries will be destroyed, to make way for more value added industries, that pay higher, much to the betterment of everybody.

I’m not here to put an end to the argument, I think this debate will rage on for a whole while longer. Rather, I would like to propose a less bleaker alternative.

The advent of technology has undoubtedly improved productivity, allowing for rapid growths in countries worldwide. Pessimists talk about how in the earlier days, usage of new tech munched at low-hanging fruits. Moving labour from mundane tasks, to more value added chores. According to them, technological growth is now at an inflection point of a curve according to Moore’s Law, where, from hereon, the growth of technology will far outpace the speed at which us humans can learn new things, and improve on our productivity.

The analogy is like this, imagine a chessboard, containing 64 individual squares, start on the first square by putting a grain of rice, and double the amount as you go across the board. Like so, 1, 2, 4, 8… The first few squares are pretty easy, and not painful at all. You’ll realize that as you get halfway, the figures start make the seat you’re sitting in less comfortable.

That’s where we’re at, the part where we start getting uncomfortable.

For the most part, I am less inclined to think that all will be lost. Having read through several more articles, I became a little more optimistic at what humans can actually achieve, particularly in the age of the internet.

History has shown that we’re adaptable creatures, and we’ll continue to do so, even as technology far outpaces our capabilities.
The vital part that the internet has played is to increase connectivity amongst other fellow humans. A small, hypothetical artisan bakery in the middle of nowhere, has access to numerous amounts of baking gurus, and also to an equal amount of customers, worldwide.

This access, I think is what makes the future a little less bleak. The future, I think, will be on demand.

We’re seeing it happen now, start-ups allowing more people to used their underutilised assets for economic purposes. We have Uber, allowing people to mobilise their vehicles to be used for public transportation, AirBnB, turning property owners into part-time hoteliers, we have Handy, a service that supplies on demand cleaners. The list goes on.

This on-demand economy goes much further than the occasional luxury. Entrepreneurs online are finding more ways to match other kinds of needs with the supply, or conversely, underutilised supply with untapped needs. Websites are springing up, brokering the demand for specific services to skilled professionals. Medicast sends a medical professional to your doors, Axiom to lawyers and InnoCentive to research specialists in fields of engineering and other hard sciences.

There are of course other examples to be placed here, but you can do your own research on that.

The point is this, I think that, in the future, desk jobs will be significantly reduced, people will start moving towards being their own boss, relying on websites that help broker their skills, with specific demands. Customers will global. Logistics? No problem, drones can do local deliveries, shipping network coverage is wide, and I suppose it won’t even be surprising that one day, you’ll just be able to print the parts that you need.

I once thought that capital and wealth would eventually be concentrated in the hands of the few, and, I must say that to a certain extent, I still do, I am now inclined to believe that people will have power over their own form of capital, which is their skills and time, powered by access to a global marketplace provided by the internet.

That’s why I think, now, is the absolute crucial time for each individual to enhance specific skills and brush up on how they market themselves, because the future will require you to be your own product, and what you can do, will be your unique selling proposition. Otherwise, you could be left out of a very lucrative and potentially inclusive market.

So, if this works out, how we define employment may have to change. More people can afford to not be tied down by employment contracts, but rather, they can go direct to the market, offering usage of their cars, their couches, their time and their technical skills or anything that people may need. The possibility is literally endless. And with that, I think the incomes for many people who take advantage of this, can very well improve.

The future will be powered by the community, a sharing economy, with everything at the tips of your finger, in front of a computer screen, assisted by technology, and that future is not too far away. All you need is the internet, and a little bit of creativity.

What do you think?

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